2023 Vacation Report: Researching Murder

I never really set out to be a horror writer. Or a thriller writer. Or an historical serial killer writer, which I suppose is as close to a descriptor of my current books as you can get. When left to my own devices, I think I tend toward a more humorous slant, but that’s not how the publishing world works. The books I’ve been writing that have found the largest audience are much more macabre, and so here I am.

Not that I’m complaining. Writing is writing, I’ve found, and one of the things I also love is researching. Writing books set in history can be very challenging, if you want to get the history right. True, I fictionalize a lot of the actual events of the plot, since with each of my books, I take a serial killer from history and use that as the premise, inserting a new character to see how that might play out. But I still want to get as much of the period right as possible. What was the technology like? How fast could you travel? What did each city look like? How would you arrive there? Where would you stay?

My current work in progress is set in Kansas in 1873. This is by far the earliest time period I’ve researched. Honestly, I don’t plan to write another book set that long ago again. As I’ve been writing, I’ve realized just how much of that time I don’t have a deep knowledge of. From the fashions to the firearms, it’s felt like every time I want to just write a scene, I’ve ground to a halt because I need to first understand so much of the setting of that scene to know what can and can’t happen.

Then again, that also leads to some really interesting research. The history of guns, for example. How ammunition developed, and how accurate the guns actually were. The history of trains: how fast they went, how often they’d need to stop, what routes they traveled. (Did you know, for instance, that much of the speed of the train depended on the quality of the track? In many areas, the tracks were laid down so quickly, the trains couldn’t go very fast at all, for fear of ripping the whole track to pieces.)

This was all further complicated by the simple fact that I’d never actually been to Kansas or Oklahoma, the two states where the book mainly takes place. I had no real knowledge of what it looked like there. Yes, I tried to use Google Maps to get an approximation of it, but it’s really hard to get a feel for an area from Google Maps. It’s too clunky. So I really wanted to visit the spot myself, and I’m very glad I did.

In my head, Kansas and Oklahoma were just these flat wide open spaces with nothing but wheat fields. Yes, this is showing my ignorance, but if you’ve talked to me much at all, you know I’ve got plenty of that to go around. How flat was flat, though? Were there any hills at all? Trees? What kind of plants and birds?

Having driven through the area now, I know how wrong I was. I can’t speak for central or western Kansas, but eastern Kansas was plenty green and hilly, with lots of variation. Eastern Oklahoman was beautiful as well, though the farther west you get, the more it starts to turn toward desert. (Not full on desert, but you can feel the transition happening.) Just having driven across all the area I’m writing about will help me make it that much more accurate and lived in. That makes a big difference.

I also stopped at two local museums to see what they had from that time period. Once again, I was reminded of how much easier (and more effective) simply going to a place can be, compared to trying to cobble what you can together from internet posts and Wikipedia pages. In the space of an hour, I had more information and photographs and news articles about what I was looking for than I’d found through days and days of searches online.

I’m not one to glorify past (or present) violence. One of the museums had the actual murder weapons there on display. That doesn’t give me any sort of thrill at all, honestly. I looked at them, took a picture, and moved on. What I do connect with is the stories of the people who lived through those attacks. Researching the past, I discover how often little has changed between then and now. Yes, there are the technological advances, but people are people. It doesn’t matter if they’ve got social media or they ride horses. They have the same basic hopes, dreams, and fears. That comes to life on the person to person level in a way you miss out on if you try to just keep history separated into neat Eras.

In any case, it was a very effective research expedition. I can’t wait to hopefully share it with you soon.


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